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Lesson 1


___ I am able to define the term ASL
___ I know  the common handshapes used in ASL.
___ I am able to fingerspell my name in ASL
___ I am able to count to five in ASL (numbers)
___ I am able to briefly describe the history of ASL
___ I am able to briefly state the gist of Deaf Culture
___ I have a basic idea of the meaning of the difference between ASL and Signed English
___ I have a basic idea of the meaning of  Pidgin (contact signing)
___ I am able to recognize and sign the vocabulary for this lesson (see below)
___ I am able to recognize and sign the practice sentences for this lesson (see below)
___ I have done a practice quiz 
___ I have checked with my instructor regarding how and where to take any graded quizzes.

Dear ASL Heroes,
Allow me to share with you this bit of information from an article in Perspectives in Education and Deafness

"There are more than 500,000 words in the English language, but a person who masters only 250 words will recognize more than two-thirds of all words shown in television captions -- provided the 250 words are those that are most frequently used. Equally dramatic, a beginning reader could be taught just 10 words -- "the, you, to, a, I, and, of, in, it, that -- and then recognize more than one out of every five words. Mastery of the top 79 words means being able to read half of all words captioned." (Source: Perspectives in Education and Deafness, Volume 16, Number 1, September/October 1997)

What if we were to apply that same concept (word frequency) to learning sign language? 

The main series of lessons in the ASL University curriculum are based on accelerated language acquisition techniques that make use of "word frequency" research and focus on the most common concepts and words used in everyday communication.

I took the most frequently used concepts and translated them into their ASL equivalents and embedded them into the lessons starting with the highest frequency of use language concepts. Thus the lessons are designed to help a student reach communicative competence very quickly-- based on science combined with over two decades of real world teaching experience.

The order in which content is introduced is a balance between "functions" (what you want to do or accomplish) and "language frequency" (what you most often say to others to accomplish those functions).  Thus while some of the lessons may seem to be random, in actuality each vocabulary concept was specifically selected to expedite (speed up) the rate at which you can actually use the language for everyday communication tasks.
-- Dr. Bill


Note: these are not English words, they are labels for sign concepts--many of which have several different meanings--depending on context and inflection.

AGAIN / repeat / re- / over /
HEARING (culturally) / speak / say / public
LIKE (emotion)
NICE / clean
SIGN (as in "signing")

Just point at the person or thing: HE / SHE / IT / ME / YOU / that person there / THIS
Point and use sweeping movement for THEY (plural), them (plural), those, or YOU-all.
Also see: WE/us

Practice Sheet:  1.A
01. YOU what-NAME? (You are named what?) Also see:  (What is your name?)
02. DEAF YOU? (Are you Deaf?)
03. STUDENT YOU?  (Are you a student?)
04. YOUR TEACHER what-NAME?  (What is your teacher's name?)
05. YOU UNDERSTAND HE/SHE?  (Do you understand him/her?)

Practice Sheet: 1.B
06. INDEX-[that-person] WHO?  [point at someone] (Who is he/she/that?)
07. AGAIN, YOU what-NAME?  (What is your name again?)
08. S/HE STUDENT S/HE? [point at teacher]  (Is she or he a student?)
09. THIS YOUR? [point at any object]  (Is this yours?)
10. "_______" WHERE?  [spell the name of a person in the room]

Practice Sheet: 1.C
11. NICE  MEET-you  (It is nice to meet you.)
12. HEARING YOU?  (Are you a Hearing person?)
13. ASL TEACHER YOU?  (Are you a teacher?)
14. YOU LEARN SIGN, WHERE?  (Where are you learning sign?)
15. YOU LEARN SIGN, WHY ?  (Why are you learning sign?)

Practice Sheet: 1.D
16. T-H-A-N-K-S how-SIGN?  (How do you sign thanks?)
17. STUDENT, IX? [point at a student] (Is she, he, or they a student?)
18. THEY LEARN SIGN?  (Are they learning sign language?)
19. YOUR TEACHER, WHO?  (Who is your teacher?)
20. YOU LIKE LEARN SIGN? (Do you like learning sign language?)

Response Vocabulary:
YES, NO, THERE-(point),

Raise your eyebrows at the end of questions that can be answered with a yes or no.
Lower your eyebrows at the end of questions that should be answered with more than a yes or no.

Questions that need to be answered with more than a yes or no are typically referred to as "WH"-questions because they usually involve signs such as, "who, what, when, where, why," and so forth.

For example, in a sentence such as:  YOU UNDERSTAND IX, YOU? ("Do you understand her / him / them / that person?") -- the eyebrows are raised since it is a question that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no."  The pronoun copy (the second "YOU") is optional. Think of the second YOU (when combined with raised eyebrows) as meaning  "(do)-YOU?"

Another "yes/no"-question example: "Do you like to meet Deaf people?"
= "YOU LIKE MEET DEAF?" (Which could also be signed "YOU LIKE MEET DEAF (do)-YOU?")  The "(do)-YOU" sign is simply a combination of eyebrows raised while pointing at the person with whom you are signing.

Story 1 (Note: I'll be adding more and more videos to this website as time goes on.  That's me (Dr. Bill) telling the story below. The stories are simply made up for practice purposes.) 

Students should practice the story until they can sign it from memory in front of a class or while being video recorded.)

HI I JOHN SMITH. (Substitute your preferred name.)
I HEARING. (If you are Deaf or Hard of Hearing then use whatever designation you prefer).
I STUDENT C-E-N-T-R-A-L HS.   [Note: Spell the  name of your school].
I LEARN SIGN.  (Note repeating the sign LEARN is a way to say "learning")
MY TEACHER NAME [spell the name of your teacher's first and last name]. 
IX DEAF. (Or Hard of Hearing or Hearing)

Sample interpretation:
Hi! I'm John Smith. It is nice to meet you. I'm Hearing.  I'm a student at Central High School. I'm learning sign language. My teacher's name is Bill Vicars. He teaches well! I understand him.
The sign HEARING here refers to being a "culturally Hearing person" (typically someone who can hear generally can talk via voicing).

"Story 1" is just an exercise to get you used to the idea of sharing information with people you meet in the Deaf Community.  It is something you might sign when meeting a Deaf person.  It is typical for students to tell Deaf people where they are learning sign, who their instructor is, and if their instructor is Deaf or Hearing. In real life when you are first starting out, you generally won't need to announce that you are hearing--because it will be obvious from your lack of signing skills.  Later though when you become fluent at ASL you will generally want to mention your Hearing status and your connection to the Deaf Community.

When Deaf people meet we tend to share quite a bit of information right after meeting.  This can be as direct as stating "I'm Deaf" or it can include indicating that we attended a Deaf school (typically a state-managed residential school), when we graduated, if we attended a common Deaf college program such as Gallaudet University (a university for the Deaf in Washington D.C.), NTID, CSUN or a few others, if we have a Deaf spouse or partner, etc.

Sharing that sort of information (where you are from, if you went to a Deaf school, if you went to Gallaudet, what year you graduated, the names of any of your relatives who are Deaf, and or if your teachers were Deaf -- and their names, etc.) makes it easier to form connections that allow us Deaf to very efficiently decide what information might be of interest to each other and often leads to fun and engaging conversations at a level of familiarity beyond what typically is occurs during initial meetings between Hearing people.

Hello, I'm Bill Vicars!


Nice to meet you...

I'm your instructor for this course.  Or, if your "in-person" instructor is using this site as a supplement to his or her class then I reckon I'm your "lab instructor."  Either way, I'm glad you are here.

I'm happy to have this opportunity to teach you about the language I love. Let's get started.

What is ASL?

ASL Definitions:
A definition that has been around for a long time is:

"American Sign Language is a visual-gestural language used by 500,000 members of the North American Deaf community."

According to we have:

American Sign Language  
n. Abbr. ASL

The primary sign language used by deaf and hearing-impaired people in the United States and Canada, devised in part by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet on the basis of sign language in France. Also called Ameslan.

A quick trip to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary ( and we get:

Main Entry: American Sign Language
Function: noun
Date: 1960
: a sign language for the deaf in which meaning is conveyed by a system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the upper body

(Hey, did you notice the date of that entry from Merriam-Webster?  1960!  ASL hasn't been "recognized" as a language for very long has it?  Oh sure, the language itself has been around since the early 1800's but it wasn't until 1960 that "experts" started recognizing it as a full-blown autonomous language.

Now let's discuss those definitions a bit.

We should say "at least" 500,000 people use ASL.  That is an OLD statistic from the 1980's.  My estimate is more along the lines of: 2 million people are using ASL on a daily basis and at least 500,000 of those people are using it as their primary means of communication. And that's just in the United States. Millions more people know "some" sign language and use it "once in a while."  For example, a grandmother of a deaf child.  She may have taken a six-week community education course and now she knows just enough to offer her grandson candy and cookies.  

"ASL is a visual gestural language." That means it is a language that is expressed through the hands and face and is perceived through the eyes.  It isn't just waving your hands in the air.  If you furrow your eyebrows, tilt your head, glance in a certain direction, twist your body a certain way, puff your cheek, or any number of other "inflections" --you are adding or changing meaning in ASL.  A "visual gestural" language carries just as much information as an oral/aural (mouth/ear) language.

Is ASL limited to just the United States and Canada? 
No.  ASL is also used in varying degrees in the Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Zaire, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar, Benin, Togo, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and many other places. (Source:  Grimes, Barbara F. (editor), (1996). "Languages of USA" Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 13th Edition. Institute of Linguistics.)  

Is ASL a universal language? 
Nope.  Not even close.  Many countries have their own version of sign language. ASL is the dominant signed language in North America, plus it is used to some extent in quite a few other countries, but it is certainly not understood by deaf people everywhere.

A student asks:  Did we get ASL from Native American Sign Language?

Dr. Bill:  Good question.  No. Let's talk a bit about the history of ASL.

ASL History:
In the early 1800's, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing minister and a graduate of Yale University met and became friends with a young Deaf girl named Alice. Gallaudet took an interest in teaching the girl and succeeded at teaching her a few words. The girl's father Dr. Mason Cogswell, encouraged Gallaudet to become involved with the establishment of a school for the Deaf.

So, in 1815 Gallaudet headed for Europe in search of methods for teaching the Deaf.

He approached a number of program directors, (the Braidwood schools, the London Asylum, etc.), but none of them were willing to share their techniques with Gallaudet.

Fortunately while in England Gallaudet met up with the director of a Paris school for the Deaf, a man by the name of Sicard.

Sicard was there with two of his Deaf pupils, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc who were also teachers at the school in Paris. They were in England giving demonstrations on how to teach the Deaf by using sign language. The Paris school, which had been founded by the Abbe Charles Michel de L'Epee in 1771, was using French Sign Language in combination with a set methodically developed signs.

Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to return with him to the States and in 1817 the first American school for the Deaf was established in the city of Hartford, Connecticut.

Over time, the signs used at that school, plus the signs that were already being used by Deaf people in America evolved into what we now know as American Sign Language.

It is important to note that sign language was being used here in America before Gallaudet and Clerc set up the school.  One example (that you might want to research more) took place in Martha's Vineyard.  At one time many Deaf people lived there and all or almost all of the townsfolk knew how to sign whether or not they were Deaf!

Deaf Culture:
You will often see the term "Deaf" spelled with a capital "D" throughout these pages.  I try to capitalize the word "Deaf" when I'm writing about people who are "culturally Deaf."  When I refer to people who are physically deaf but not culturally Deaf I tend to use a lowercase letter "d."  While it is true that in general "Deaf" people are physically "deaf," that is not always the case.  The case could be made that some hearing children of Deaf parents are culturally Deaf.  If it becomes important to indicate that a person is both physically deaf and culturally Deaf I will use this label:  "d/Deaf."

People who feel that being Deaf is about "language, culture, and a visual orientation to life" subscribe to the "cultural model" of Deafness.

In general, members of the American Deaf Community do not think of ourselves to be disabled. We don't see or label ourselves as impaired versions of Hearing people. We see ourselves as a cultural group bonded together by a common language. Members of our community don't want be be "h/Hearing!" If given a choice, many of us would choose to remain d/Deaf!  

There are indeed many deaf people in the U.S. who consider themselves to be disabled. Such individuals are generally not fluent in ASL and do not consider themselves to be members of the core (culturally-Deaf) Deaf Community.  So, most of the time when I use the term "Deaf Community," I'm talking about people who are culturally Deaf.

People who feel that "deafness is problem to be solved" subscribe to the "pathological model" or the "medical model" of deafness and are not culturally Deaf.

It may help to realize it isn't our "deafness" that we value. Rather it is our "Deafhood." 

As part of this lesson, I'd like to make sure you learn how to fingerspell your name.
One way to do that is to check out the "fingerspelling" page.
Another helpful page is the " handshapes page."


Check with your local
instructor or your syllabus regarding the location of any graded quizzes for this lesson.  If you are just self-studying, for a practice quiz, visit:
(Self-Study Quiz page)

Additional Notes / Optional Reading:

Note L1.2:  Left handed signing.  This website is designed from the perspective of a right-handed signer.  "Lefties" generally sign in a mirror image of righties. For more information visit "Left-handed Signers" in the Library.
Also, you might want to check out this vocabulary review video for Lesson 1:

Dr. Bill's notes for teachers:  Lesson 1 teaching notes

Additional discussion topics if you have time:

I have a basic idea of the meaning of  Cued Speech
I have a basic idea of the meaning of  Rochester Method

A bit of Lesson 1 review for you:



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